In the days when the sea was regarded less as a barrier to communication than the easiest means of it, the ocean surrounding the Indian peninsula guaranteed it a significant place in the histories of its adjacent continents. In the ancient world, contacts were especially strong towards the east, where peoples native to India carried their trade, their technologies and, perhaps most of all, their ideas into new lands. Physical evidence of colonization and settlement is, admittedly, scarce: confined, for the most part, to northern Sri Lanka and to relics of the seaborne empire of the South Indian Chola dynasty (tenth—twelfth centuries ce
), found as far away as Java and Sumatra (Hall: 1985
). However, ‘softer’ evidence of cultural influence is much stronger and unmistakable. Two of the great religious traditions of east and south-east Asia had their origins in the Indian subcontinent: Sanskritic Hinduism, whose mark stretched from Angkor Wat in Cambodia to Candi Perumban in Java; and Buddhism, whose reach and remit proved to be greater still.
Recognition of this cultural influence in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries led many theorists to suppose the sometime existence of a ‘Greater India’, even a world-empire once centred on the subcontinent, which time and history had come to erode. Yet, as Sheldon Pollock has warned, while flattering contemporary sentiments of nationalism, such theories need to recognize that, if this were an ‘empire’, it was one like none in the modern world. There is little — beyond the Chola naval expeditions — to suggest an expansionary political drive or even political means to sustain an apparatus of hegemony. Also, there is little to suggest the large-scale physical movement of people. Rather, India's influence was conveyed via the activities of individuals or small groups of merchants, priests, intellectuals and service personnel and it achieved its strength from the willingness with which recipients embraced what they brought with them_ sophisticated theories of society and law; a language of unparalleled precision and elegance; in Buddhism, a religion offering a universalistic moral schema. Sanskritic (and related Pali) cultures were rapidly imbibed, ‘indigenized’ and made independent of the need for continuing institutional links with the subcontinent. ‘Greater India’ represented a cosmopolis of ideas whose impact vastly outreached the small number of ‘Indian-natives’ ever physically present at its frontiers (Pollock: 2006
Moreover, included in this universe of ideas were technologies which forged connections no less deep. The superior quality of Indian cotton textiles was recognized throughout the ancient and medieval worlds, and the technologies producing it also were eventually exported worldwide.
However, it took far longer to replicate these technologies than it did Sanskrit, ‘the language of the gods’ — in the case of south-east Asia, not until the seventeenth century ce
and, in that of Western Europe, not until the eighteenth. In the interim, the subcontinent enjoyed the reputation of ‘the workshop of the world’ whose goods were conveyed to markets from the Levant (and eventually Western Europe) to Africa, south-east Asia and China — and, very often, conveyed by merchants who were native to India itself. Almost from the time that we first have records, there appear to have been Indian merchant-communities resident in the consumption centres of the Indian Ocean world: Cairo and Baghdad; Zanzibar and East Africa; Sri Lanka; Java, Sumatra and the Malaysian archipelago (Pearson: 2003
). The staple of their trade was cotton textiles. However, this put them in a position to profit from other goods which consumers sought from India — especially spices and gem-stones — and also those which were wanted by Indian consumers themselves — coffee, silk, specie and base metals. For more than a millennium, thousands of small ships criss-crossed the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, articulating a lively commerce in which Indian merchants and ship-owners played a leading role. Indeed, Indian mercantile activities were by no means confined to the sea. Utilizing the ‘gateways’ into central Asia represented by the ‘silk road’ east and the ‘horse road’ north and west, they penetrated deep into the interiors of the Russian and Chinese empires (Dale: 1994
). Reflective of the sophisticated commercial knowledges built up in India's then highly developed economy, the equivalent term to ‘Indian’ was virtually synonymous with ‘merchant’ in half a dozen languages of the region, much as ‘Jew’ was with ‘banker’ in medieval Europe.
Yet the subcontinent's relative economic development did not only give rise to merchant communities. It also drew ‘foreign’ merchant communities towards India, along with hosts of other groups — soldiers and slaves, priests and literati, artists and artisans. Recent archaeological investigations in both the south-east and south-west have revealed a much more expansive trade with ancient Rome than once was supposed, to match what has long been known about these regions’ direct connections with imperial China (Whittaker: 2009
). Connections, too, with Jewish merchant communities centred on Cairo and Armenian communities from the Caucuses also can be traced to the first millennium of the Christian era, as can the beginnings of the influx from the Levant represented by the Syrian Christian community of Kerala (Goitein and Friedman: 2007
The rise of Islam, however, may have marked a new watershed. Arabian-based merchants — who, no doubt, had long conducted trade with Indian ports — became much more visible as a religious mission was added to their pursuit of wealth. From the eighth century ce, the southern peninsula saw a build-up of Muslim merchant communities whose activities moved progressively eastwards — penetrating south-east Asia, too, behind the green flag of Islam. Ports on the south-east and south-west coasts now became staging posts in an elongated set of linkages connecting Arabia to Aceh (Wink: 1991
In the north, other forces were also at work. The road from central Asia to Punjab became the pathway for successive waves of conquest by armies of Muslim warriors, culminating with the Mughals at the beginning of the sixteenth century. However, it opened the way not only for soldiers but for the full panoply of Islamic civilization, especially in its Persian adumbration. Poets and theologians, sufi pirs and bureaucrats, musicians and artists poured in to service the courts of Muslim rulers and the growing congregation of ‘indigenous’ converts to Islam. North India, in particular, but also many urban centres dispersed through the subcontinent, became drawn into extended networks of patronage and ideas, making them part of a much wider Islamic ecumene and giving elite levels of several local societies a distinctly Islamicate appearance (Wink: 1991). And, from the turn of the sixteenth century, Western Europeans began to add their own presence to this extraordinary mix — initially from the Catholic Mediterranean but, during
the seventeenth century, from the Protestant north as well. While never large in number, their impact immediately added to the forces of commerce driving India into the world — and much of the world into India. They linked the subcontinent to the new flows of specie metal coming out of the Americas (and Japan) and contributed disproportionately to the progressive monetization of the economy in the Mughal Empire under Akbar, which further developed it as a world-significant centre of trade and commerce (Richards: 1987
In the millennium prior to the onset of colonial rule, Indian society — especially, but by no means exclusively, around its port cities — presented a picture of remarkable cultural plurality. Large parts of it consisted of communities of immigrants from many different quarters of the subcontinent and the Indian Ocean world: each preserving aspects of their language and culture but living side by side in some species of harmony informed, it can be surmised, by social paradigms derived from the Hindu caste system. The nature of this cultural plurality has been brilliantly evoked in Amitav Ghosh's imaginative portrait of medieval Mangalore in his In An Antique Land
). However, and importantly, each of these groups was not only part of a single local community, but also linked to wider communities yet which inhabited other locales in other societies and might be influenced by pressures arising there. Social harmony was by no means guaranteed and, in a context of weak state authority, conflict and violence were ever-present dangers: as K.N. Chaudhuri has put it, the strongest guarantor of security was always coercive force (Chaudhuri: 1985
). It would be problematic to allow a post-modern angst against the homogenization of national identity to lead to a romanticization of conditions of life in pre-modern cultural pluralities.
It would also be problematic to subject description of the relations of the pre-modern Indian Ocean World to categories derived from latter-day modern nationalism. In many ways, ‘India’ as a meaningful socio-geographic space, did not exist in this era. Rather, as K. N. Chaudhuri has also argued, the territory represented by India might better be seen as divided between three concentric ‘circuits of trade and civilization’ connecting parts of its society to parts elsewhere across the Indian Ocean. One circuit linked north India to central Asia and Iran; a second linked western India to Arabia and the Gulf; a third linked south India to south-east Asia (Chaudhuri: 1985). People, goods and ideas moved around these circuits: it being neither meaningful, nor often possible, to specify where any especially originated. The circuits also converged and overlapped at certain points, and they overlay other, more spatially restricted circuits. Although, by the tenth century ce, it had become almost entirely confined to the subcontinent, there was also the circuit represented by ‘Bharat’ — sacred to Sanskritic Hinduism, centred on the Ganges and stretching out to dispersed temple and pilgrimage centres across India. And, by the twelfth and thirteenth centuries ce, with the rise of vernacular literatures, there were the circuits describing the parameters of discrete regional cultures as well.
Identity was gained by reference to points on these circuits and could be both multiple and contextual: an individual could be a Gujarati, a Hindu, a Vaishya, an Arabic speaker and the agent of a Muslim court all at the same time. The context was one in which, in some senses, everybody was an ‘immigrant’, referring themselves to locations and sources of authority and value elsewhere: as noted in this volume, virtually all Indian origin myths specify arrival from another place. But, by the same token, being an ‘immigrant’ was wholly unexceptionable where there were no self-evaluating ‘indigenes’.
Into this highly mobile, pulsating and variable Indian Ocean world, the Western Europeans ‘inrupted’ from the sixteenth century ce. Much controversy surrounds how far, in what ways and when they disrupted it and what they built in its place. From the beginning, it can be said that they struggled to understand it and to abide by its norms. With their recent Iberian experience, the Portuguese targeted Islam as ‘enemy’ at the start and added an edge to religious
conflict — even if they were less clear about how to relate to Hindus. Also, their subsequent adoption of counter-reformation theology and nascent ideas of proto-national identity caused migratory ripples down the west coast, as considerable numbers of their would-be subjects in Goa moved away. However, the weakness of the Portuguese on land limited their ability to recast Indian society, at least until they became part of a much stronger European presence in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Subrahmanyam_ 1993
But they were by no means so powerless at sea. From the first, they introduced ideas derived from their European experience, which had radical implications for Indian overseas trade. They sought to ‘arm the sea’ and to bring profit and power together in the way that they managed their commerce: establishing fortified ports, imposing cartaz (licences) on independent local shipping and treating rivals as ‘pirates’. This fundamentally broke with an Indian Ocean tradition which had facilitated freedom of movement and trade. In any event, few of the small states and sultanates bordering the Ocean had possessed the naval power to seek to enforce monopolies. Moreover, the larger states (such as the Mughal Empire), which might have done, had other pre-occupations and regarded the encouragement of trade from multiple sources as a positive good. However, with the costs of running their far-flung empire high and returns from trade at risk from forces of competition, the Portuguese thought otherwise: bringing aggressive principles of mercantilism, forged out of the trade wars of Europe itself, into the Indian Ocean (Subrahmanyam_ 1993).
Admittedly, and as Sanjay Subrahmanyam has argued, it would be easy to exaggerate the immediate impact of the Portuguese, whose resources and fleets were limited in scale and often diverted to alternative priorities. Nonetheless, the precedent was set and followed by other European powers as they rounded the Cape later on: the Dutch, the Danish, the French and the English. Over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ce, they forced an increasing amount of India-centred trade into the bottoms of their ships, and reduced the scope of Indian-owned shipping, especially in the longer-distance trades. This did not necessarily mean a decline in the total volume of India's commerce — indeed, at times it would seem the reverse. The Europeans often found new markets for Indian goods and expanded India's trade to Africa, China and the New World. However, it did mean the progressive subordination of India-based, foreign-trade agencies to European control, and a dimunition in the scale and energies of Indian-based overseas mercantile organizations. If, in the early seventeenth century, the European companies themselves had rested on, and allied with, the vast commercial empires of the likes of Virji Vora, in Gujarat, and Kasi Viranna, on the Coromandel coast, by the mid-eighteenth century there were no comparable Indian mercantile magnates working the seas — their fall anticipating by half-a-century what was to happen to the land-based commercial empires of the likes of Jagath Seth in Bengal, on which the English Company rested. India-centred trading initiatives were further curtailed by the way in which rising European global power either undermined or destabilized the position of several of the consumer markets which Indian merchants had long served, especially in the Middle East and Iran, or closed them off to Indian-derived goods, as in ‘Dutch’ Java. If Indian-produced goods still continued to be sold in the eighteenth-century world, it was rather less by people from India itself and rather less around the Indian Ocean (Prakash: 1998
Moreover, from the turn of the nineteenth century, it was rather less anywhere — at leas...